Many newer smartphones support eSIMs as well as the physical SIM cards we’ve all been slotting into our devices for years. If you’re wondering what exactly an eSIM is, and whether or not you should be using one, this guide is for you.
SIM cards, as we all know, give you a number and an identity for connecting to cellular networks. SIM stands for Subscriber Identity (or Identification) Module, and the card essentially gives you clearance on your carrier’s network. SIMs can be switched between phones, as long as the phones are unlocked or locked to the same carrier.
SIMs haven’t changed too much over the years, aside from getting smaller, but now we have eSIMs, too. The ‘e’ is for embedded, which gives you a clue as to how it works. It’s a SIM that’s built right into a phone’s motherboard, so there’s no physical card to worry about. Everything is handled through software, which in theory should make everything about it—from setting it up to switching carriers—a whole lot easier.
A growing number of phones now offer eSIM support, usually alongside a traditional SIM card slot. The iPhone 12, the Pixel 5, and the Galaxy S21 all enable eSIMs. Setting up an eSIM usually involves scanning a QR code, which then leads you through the process of registering your cell number and your profile on the device. Here’s how to get started.
On iPhones, from Settings, tap Cellular Data then Add Cellular Plan to get started. On stock Android, open Settings and choose Network and Internet, then tap the + icon next to Mobile network—you’ll see an option to Download a SIM at the bottom.
If your handset has both an eSIM and a traditional physical SIM card slot, in most cases you can operate two numbers from the same phone, because you have both a standard and an embedded SIM in the same device. It’s one of the key reasons you might want to set up an eSIM.
An eSIM also offers plenty of benefits when traveling. With no physical SIM card to worry about, you can quickly and easily sign up for a local eSIM package in whatever country you happen to be in. This doesn’t just work for phones either—several portable wifi hotspot devices come with eSIM capabilities, so switching between countries is just a question of installing a new profile. There’s no need to go into a store or to wait for a package to arrive.
Although you can only use one eSIM at a time on your phone (for now at least), switching between profiles once you’ve set them up is very straightforward—again, useful for hopping between countries, or voice and data plans, and so on. You can use whichever eSIM suits your current situation best.
When it comes to switching plans or switching carriers, everything is straightforward with an eSIM. Moving just takes a few seconds while the embedded hardware is reprogrammed, and then you’re ready to go again—no need to prod your phone with an ejector tool, no need to open up slots on your handset, and no need to get confused about which is your old SIM card and which is your new one.
There are benefits for manufacturers as well, because eSIMs take up a fraction of the room of even the smallest physical SIMs. That extra space where a SIM card slot would have been can be used for something else, or cut out to make the overall device smaller.
Not everyone is a fan of the eSIM approach though. There’s an argument that eSIMs are easier to use anonymously or with fake credentials, which is why in China the iPhone 12 is fitted with two SIM ports rather than a standard SIM port and an eSIM. Most phones still include a normal SIM slot alongside the eSIM option, so the industry hasn’t quite gone all-in on the virtual option yet.
And there is at least one scenario where an eSIM might be more difficult to work with: switching between devices. With a traditional SIM card, you can pop it out of one handset and into another and just carry on; with an eSIM, there’s a bit more time and effort involved as you activate the new phone and deactivate the old one. Exactly how difficult this is depends on whoever is providing the eSIM.
If you want to get started with an eSIM, you need to find both a phone that supports the technology (as mentioned above) and a carrier or company that will sell you an eSIM. In the U.S., you can now get eSIMs from all the big carriers, as well as from the likes of Truphone and Ubigi (these sellers will also give you plenty of advice about compatible devices).
Prepaid eSIM plans are harder to find than ones linked to a monthly payment, but both types are available if you spend enough time looking (depending on your country). The majority of mid-range and budget phones don’t have eSIM support, but the signs look good that the technology will continue to get used more widely in the future.
Right now, if an eSIM is an option for you, there’s no reason not to take it—especially if you want to be able to quickly switch between different phone plans, or use two numbers in tandem on your handset, or spend a lot of time traveling in other countries and need to be as flexible as possible. If for some reason you prefer to jump between devices using the same SIM, then by all means stick with physical cards for a little while longer.